Joel and Ellie are such iconic characters that casting them in a new medium once felt like a fool’s errand. An adaptation of The Last of Us was teased years ago, with stars like Maisie Williams and Matthew McConaughey pegged for the role long before the final picks were cast years later. If you think Troy Baker and Ashley Johnson should have taken up the live-action mantle, please go and watch the super cringe stage play they did revisiting certain cutscenes a few years ago and let me know when you’ve changed your mind.
As fancast favourites, especially for Ellie, grew older and the project sat in limbo, it remained unclear exactly who would step into these dirty post-apocalyptic shoes. Then along came the duo of Pedro Pascal and Bella Ramsay, two well-known names who at first glance don’t quite embody Joel and Ellie, but after one episode have already solidified their place in series’ history. Both of them are perfect, exuding the very same aura as their video game counterparts while having the screen time to expand upon them with further development and dialogue.
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I knew Bella Ramsay primarily from Hilda and Game of Thrones, while Pedro Pascal has long been charming our pants off as The Mandalorian and so many other swoon-worthy dudes. Despite their talent, I didn’t see them pulling this off, but how thrilled I am to be proven wrong. Right away, Joel Miller gives off unmistakable boomer energy with a jaded past hidden by a personable warmth and familial dependence you can’t help but fall in love with. Serving time in the military and likely accustomed to loss and perseverance, he wants for little and is willing to work hard so long as it provides for those who matter, even when it means forgetting to celebrate his own birthday with the only family he has left.
He is equal parts withdrawn and empathetic, making ends meet even if it means rejecting the life he actually deserves to live. This outlook is reflected in his daughter, who is already picking up on his less than scrupulous habits yet with a far more intelligent perspective on the world. While as a family unit they are as small as it gets, how much they mean to one another is plain to see. When all that falls apart, you know that Joel has lost everything.
Even twenty years later with a greater penchant for violence and thievery, the warm-hearted man who loves cheesy movies and classic rock remains, with Pedro Pascal giving him a tragically comedic edge that shines through every line of dialogue. HBO seems to know that both existing fans and newcomers will be tuning into this show, and thus certain things have been expanded on in all the right ways. Joel has a more defined backstory now, clearly a big presence in the Boston Quarantine Zone as he skips ration lines and bandits cower in fear at the mere mention of his name. This version of Joel has and will kill people to get by, throwing compassion to the wayside alongside the death of his daughter that ended his world as the one around him began to fall apart. To leave Joel’s perspective adds so many layers to him.
The game never allowed us to, with Joel’s own world view the only reinforcement we had of what this society had become and who he is within it. He’s both another survivor and a renowned mercenary who operates between the lines to come out on top, and even then is subject to double-crossing deals for archaic car batteries and bloodshed whenever situations call for it. Joel and Ellie’s initial escape from the zone was bookended by the revelation that Ellie is infected, the death of a random soldier doesn’t factor into things. But in the show, Joel knows this man, has dealt with him for years, yet a bitter reminder of his past and threat of losing another child, even a stranger, is enough for him to beat a man to death. His dark side is peering through much earlier, hinting at the history we’ll see unfold in future episodes.
Ellie is the same. Her introduction is layered with far more intrigue and nuance, her purpose as the saviour of humanity being one of the first things we learn about her. Robert is a minor character killed off-screen as more time is given to the bond between Ellie and Marlene. We even have Riley name-dropped to a thunderous emotional reaction, our heroine’s troubled past already beginning to unravel long before we’ve seen any of it. She was in isolation in fear of her safety, not because of her immunity, but a promise made to her mother who died years ago. All of these revelations will come to pass in greater detail, but to see The Last of Us already plant the seeds and make clear the intentions it has for these characters rules.
Their dialogue, behaviour, quirks, mannerisms, and history suggest that Pedro Pascal and Bella Ramsay aren’t just inhabiting these characters and playing out stories we know, but instead seeking to build upon them, offering a new perspective with further depth that TV is far more adept than games at providing. Joel and Ellie’s journey was always going to work well in prestige television, but I wasn’t expecting this level of creative deviation while still doing justice to the core narrative, especially when it comes to its two lead characters.
I want to see them evolve, adapt, and showcase sides of both we’ve never seen, and now I’m confident the show is going to do just that.